The Immaculate Conception

The Immaculate Conception

The Immaculate Conception, the belief that Mary was born without the stain of original sin, became an official doctrine of the Catholic Church in 1854. Yet it was a belief that had been held by some since the Church’s earliest years, with popular devotion increasing from the Middle Ages onwards. In Spain, the doctrine was regarded as a bulwark against the Protestant Reformation, and so it was promoted by successive Hapsburg monarchs.

Antolínez’s painting of the Immaculate Conception sets Mary in the heavens. Her elongated body appears to be standing on a translucent, disc-shaped moon, while a crown of stars encircles her head. This depiction echoes the description of the beautiful young girl found in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament as well as that of the woman in Revelation 12:1 who appears in the heavens ‘with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars’. These texts have traditionally been interpreted as allegorical and prophetic descriptions of Mary’s relationship to God.

Mary’s twisted posture, accentuated by the movement of her rich blue mantle, directs the gaze of the viewer towards her youthful, pale face. Her eyes are cast downwards towards slender hands that are joined together in prayer. Around her, a number of cherubs play with objects that have traditionally been regarded as symbols of her purity. These include lilies, which recall the Annunciation, the palm branch, which serves as a reminder that she will follow her son to his death in Jerusalem, and the sceptre, which functions as a sign of her future coronation as Queen of Heaven.

Antolínez’s earliest biographer, Antonio Palomino (1655–1726), described him as having profited greatly from the study of older artists in both his native Seville and at the Royal Court in Madrid. In this painting it is evident that he was drawing on models developed by artists such as Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664), and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–82). Palomino also speaks of Antolínez’s talent and his vanity, and it is clear that in this image he is not simply copying the work of others but adding his unique handling of colour and exuberant style to a well-known subject.

Richard Jacques, Durham University

The Immaculate Conception Click to zoom and pan


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Artwork Details


The Immaculate Conception.


José Antolínez (Madrid, 1635–75).



Medium and Support

Oil on canvas.


188 x 135 cm.

Marks and Inscriptions


Acquisition Details

Bequeathed by the Founders, 1885.

Previous Owners

King Louis Philippe I (1773–1850); his posthumous sale, Paris, 6 May 1853, lot 424; where possibly acquired by Francisco Javier de Quinto y Cortés (1810–60), Count of Quinto; his posthumous sale, Paris, 25 July 1862, lot 2; where acquired by John and Joséphine Bowes.


The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, B.M.69.


Eric Young, Four Centuries of Spanish Painting: 17th June – 17th September 1967, The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham (Gateshead: Team Valley Printers, 1967), p. 47–48 (no. 60);

Antonio Palomino de Castro y Velasco, Lives of the Eminent Spanish Painters and Sculptors, trans. Nina Ayala Mallory (Cambridge: University Press, 1987), pp. 231–32;

Eric Young, Catalogue of Spanish Paintings in the Bowes Museum, 2nd ed. (Middlesborough: The Bowes Museum, 1988), pp. 32–33;

Lesley K. Twomey, The Serpent and the Rose: The Immaculate Conception and Hispanic Poetry in the Late Medieval Period, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions, 132 (Leiden: Brill, 2008);

Véronique Gerard Powell, ‘Spanish Paintings in the Bowes Museum’, in Spanish Art in County Durham, ed. Clare Baron & Andy Beresford (Bishop Auckland: Auckland Castle Trust, The Bowes Museum, & Durham University, 2014), p. 87;

Mercedes Cerón, ‘The Immaculate Conception’, [accessed: 16.07.22].